Michael Martone

large image of the number 9 6 5 3

On Christmas, 1921, President Warren G. Harding commuted the sentence of Socialist Eugene V. Debs who had been imprisoned since 1919 in Atlanta for sedition. Debs arrived home in Terra Haute, Indiana, three days later and was met at the rail depot by thousands of cheering Terre Hauteans. At that moment, Art Smith, The Bird Boy of Fort Wayne, was aloft, over the city known as The Crossroads of America, the intersection of highways 40 and 41, affixing the number 9 6 5 3 in frigid pristine Indiana air. This is not an estimate of attendance or of the crowd sized gathered on the ground, but the number given to the famous agitator and pacifist (now speaking animatedly from the open vestibule platform of the observation car below) by the Federal Bureau of Prisons. As Convict #9653, Debs had run for President of the United States, again, his fifth attempt, the year before, garnering nearly a million votes while behind bars. Art Smith had heard of Debs, but had not voted for him. In fact, there appears to be no record of his having voted for anyone at all. He had been and would be in the future on the move, never establishing a permanent residence really. And, as he was often perched high overhead, flying over precincts and wards, more often than not, he felt detached from the earthbound goings on beneath him. Even though he allowed the epithet of “The Bird Boy of Fort Wayne” to remain connected to his name, trailing Art Smith like the new advertising banners he had begun to deploy behind his aircraft to augment his skywriting, he no longer felt attached to that place as he once did. A Bird Boy, yes, but of Fort Wayne, less and less. Politics and the voting that accompanied it, he understood, was attached to place. No, it had dawned on him a while ago that he was now, more and more, a citizen of the sky. Debs had been sentenced to ten years hard labor, and he had been disenfranchised for life for his seditious speech at Canton, Ohio, during the Great War. In many ways, Debs too was as disconnected from the world as Smith was now. Even bound he had been unbound, not local but global. Rootless.


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